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Translation Discussion - Leonardo Electronic Almanac


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Opinio n: Translation Discussion: Mich ael Punt, Roger Malina and
Martin Zierold: Part I: How much for a bad translation? by Michael

ISSN No: 1559-0429
Author: Michael Punt
Ed itor-in-Chief, Leonardo Reviews
Originally published in: Leonardo Reviews Quarterly 1.03 | May 2011

As we are preparing to go to press with this edition of Leonardo Reviews
Quart erly an article in a reasonably respectable UK newspaper (Guardian, 15.
04.11) quotes from the Association of American Publishers’ report that t otal e-
book sales in the US in February was $90.3 million. They compare this with the
figure for paperback sales in the same period of $81.2 million. This article is
headlin ed: ‘E-book sales pass another milestone. Electronic books have becom e
the largest sin gle format in the US for the first t ime, new data reveals.’ F our
paragraphs into the article, however, it becomes clear that the overall trade in
print books is still bigger than the e-market and that the most bullish
prediction for parity in the US market is around 2014/15. (For a full account of
theses statistics see: International Digital Publishing Forum

Undoubtedly there are new distribution and publishing opportunities opened
up by the growing ubiquity of Internet connection and cheaper hardware
production. But, according to figures from Intern et World Stats, in June 2010
there are 6.8 billion people in the world and 2 billion of these (28.7%) ar e
connected to the Internet, 13% of them live in North America, 24.2% in Europe
and 42% in Asia. While the penetration rate of Internet usage is highest in
North America (77%) the numbers involved are relatively low (on a global
scale) and since the near saturation the potential for growth is much lower in
the USA than in Eur ope or Asia. (http://www.intern etwor

To put the headline into another perspective it is worth visiting what exact ly
the Association of American Publishers (which comprises less than 300 US
book publishers – there are about 4,000 listed at posted on their website on 14.04.11. Their
press release stated under the modest banner ‘Popularity of Books in Digital
Platforms Continues to Grow, According to AAP Publishers February 2011 Sales
Report‘ was that : ‘This on e-month surge is primarily attributed to a high level
of strong post- holiday e-book buying, or “loading”, by consumers who received
e- reader devices as gifts.’ Experts n ote that the expanded selection of e-
readers introduced for the holidays and the broader availability of titles are
both fact ors. ( /)

H owever, by the 18th of April the head line ‘E-book Sales surpass paper book’
was all ac ross the Internet (and some pr int journals) and will no doubt find its
way into s ome acad emic conference calls and papers . Whilst it is
understandable that vested interests such as G8 media outlets, including
newspaper and book distributors, might ‘spin’ the story to suggest that the
USA market is synonymous with the global market, and that the marketing
category ‘paperback’ is in some way an equivalent to the s emantic concept of
‘b ooks’ from the point of view of the arts, scien ces and humanities, these
conflations need to be examined carefully and where appropriate challenged.

Alas the enthusiasm for a view of culture driven by technology encourages the
slippage in translation between journalism and s cholarship. The rhetor ic
surrounding the e-book publicity is inviting and is reminiscent of similar poor
analysis in Games Studies in the mid-nineties. The apparently significant
milestone of games sales overtaking cinema theatrical ticket sales was
uncritically repeated (often by senior academics) in a way that suggested that
the ‘games industry’ was now bigger than the cinema. Such naivety about the
economics of media distribution was itself a repetition of the vapourware that
surrounded the CD-ROM, which was going to close libraries etc. What damaged
the possibility of CD-Rom media development was arguably the rhetoric, which
raised consumer expectations of content, which the storage media was not able
to deliver . And whilst ob jections to the euphoria ar e often not well r eceived, or
regarded as mer e antediluvian pedantry, what is at stake in this slippage in n ot
just poor scholarship but, as in the case of CD-Rom and to s ome ext ent DVD, a
failure to exploit cr eative opportunity. Moreover there is also the loss of quite
precise terms that may not have relevance to one community but are still of
crucial interest to another. Whilst the term library may mean no more than a
collection of t exts that can be digitally stored, for another community it is a
collection of b ooks that are catalysts for knowledge transfer activities
requirin g human interaction. Similar ly the term ‘book’, as it was underst ood in
the context of print on paper, may be a redundancy to some people in the world
who in John Betjeman’s famous poem S lough ‘d o not know/The birdsong fr om
the radio’, for the 89 .9 % of Afr icans, and 79 .8% of Asians not connected t o the
Internet , its meaning is attached to libraries and shelves (and human
interaction) rather than the procedur es of patent Optical Character Reading
software and data dumps. These two meanin gs are not syn onym ous: books d o
n ot fit into hard drives--on ly a r educed version of their text and images is
amenable to such reduction. A reduction that reverses the technological logic
of print, which has enabled the progressive reduction of error as each new
edition corrected flaws in the previous. OCR and even multiple human
transcriptions methods return us to the age of hand written texts in which each
it eration introduces new error. (For an example s ee the discussion concerning
Google Ngrams viewer based on Google Books .)

These objections and cautions against overstatement of the potential of a new
form of distribution may s eem pedantic and ob vious, but in the enthusiasm of
the moment or the opportunity what is lost in translation can be overlooked.
The s ocial and economic impact of extrap olating from the translation of local
and economically privileged interpretation of a n oun as a key to developin g a
global policy for knowledge trans fer n eeds to be measured against the values
and ethics of artists, scientists and those in the humanities whose primary
interest is global en franchisement through shared kn owledge.

Language and meaning is always alive and dynamic and constantly changing
and for this reason the cu ltural turn in translation studies that Roger Malina
outlin es in his editorial in this issue is a crucial move. Leonardo Reviews
Quarterly is not printed and consequently the claim of it ‘going to press’ is a
transfer fr om an earlier techn ology and n ot entirely appropriate (and I
apologize for slack language). LRQ does have an irreversible moment when we
commit the text to publication but unlike the print magazine its published
form can be m odified at will. However, the use of the old m edia term is
exemplary of the ways in which a close study of translation through cultural
filters can offer a new archaeology yielding insight into difference across time
and communities, mindsets and value systems. It can also have a determinin g
impact on pressing contemporary issues as key terms that shape our values and
are redefined by quite local but economically power fu l influ ential interests.
For example the ubiquity of ‘social networking’ as a term ass ociated with a
product has alt ered the concept of social which excludes the more difficult
n egotiations between unequal communities ranging from the management of
shyness at a personal level to the exclusion of 98% of Africans 93% of Asian
and 94% of the inhabitants of the Middle East fr om the Faceb ook ‘social’
network. Given such limitations what can the term ‘social’ mean in its new

Another is that as a consequence of this new translation, which redefines the
market place (or excludes the disenfranchised) Facebook’s profits are likely to
yield $1billion this year
/content/jan2011/tc2011016_998330.htm Supported by collab oration fr om the
media conglomerates whose investment is in distribution, rather than content,
these vast sums were made in the slippage between the poor (by which I mean
willfully limited) translation of ‘social’ and ‘network’. Perhaps the most
serious consequence of drawing an equivalence between a marketing term and a
con cept that travels acr oss and b etween languages nuanced by cultural context
in this case is that there is a slippage between social as something to do with
collective inter action to something that involves a mere 30 million us ers. If
the Facebook translation of ‘social’ becom es the dominant default, how, for
example, will users of the term understand issues such as global malnutrition,
big oil or the impact of climate change?

One can only welcome the ‘Translational Turn’ (although perhaps a better term
than ‘turn’ could be found), and as a reviews project Leonardo Reviews and
Leon ardo Reviews Quarter ly will b e paying special attention to it in the coming
months particularly in its capacity to alert us to the consequences for the
disenfranchised of p oor translation .


I am gratefu l for the stimulation for this editorial from exchan ges with
colleagues at the INTR network meeting in Budapest (http://trans- I am particularly grateful to Dr. Martin
Zierold of the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC)
Gießener Graduate School for the Humanities ( GGK) for his thoughtful
comments in the preparation. Finally I am pleased t o acknowledge support for
the background research as an outcome of the EU/HERA funded TEF project
and the UK team, Dr. Martha Blassnigg and Martyn Woodward (http://trans-
Bio: Michael Punt is Professor Art and Technology, director of Transtechnology Research at the University
of Plymouth and is also Editor-in-Chief of Leonardo Reviews. His email is and more
information about his work is available at

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